Dear Client,

In addition to this Special Report written by my colleague Mark McClellan, we are sending you an abbreviated weekly report, which includes the Tactical Global Asset Allocation Monthly Update.

Best regards,
Peter Berezin, Chief Global Strategist
Global Investment Strategy

Highlights

  • A "culture of profound cost reduction" has gripped the business sector since the GFC according to one school of thought, permanently changing the relationship between labor market slack and wages or inflation. If true, it could mean that central banks are almost powerless to reach their inflation targets.
  • Amazon, Airbnb, Uber, robotics, contract workers, artificial intelligence, horizontal drilling and driverless cars are just a few examples of companies and technologies that are cutting costs and depressing prices and wages. In the first of our series on inflation, we will focus on the rise of e-commerce and the related "Amazonification" of the economy.
  • In theory, positive supply shocks should not have more than a temporary impact on inflation if the price level is indeed a monetary phenomenon in the long term. But a series of positive supply shocks could make it appear for quite a while that low inflation is structural in nature.
  • We are keeping an open mind and reserving judgement on the disinflationary impact of robotics, artificial intelligence and the gig economy until we do more research. But in terms of the impact of e-commerce, it is difficult to find supportive evidence at the macro level.
  • The admittedly inadequate measures of online prices available today do not suggest that e-commerce sales are depressing the overall inflation rate by more than 0.1 or 0.2 percentage points.
  • Moreover, it does not appear that the disinflationary impact of competition in the retail sector has intensified over the years. Today's creative destruction in retail may be no more deflationary than the shift to 'big box' stores in the 1990s.
  • Perhaps lower online prices are forcing traditional retailers match the e-commerce vendors, allowing for a larger disinflationary effect than we estimate. However, the fact that retail margins are near secular highs outside of department stores argues against this thesis.
  • The sectors potentially affected by e-commerce make up a small part of the CPI index. The deceleration of inflation since the GFC has been in areas unaffected by online sales.
  • High profit margins for the overall corporate sector and depressed productivity growth also argue against the idea that e-commerce represents a large positive macro supply shock.
  • Perhaps the main way that e-commerce is affecting the macro economy and financial markets is not through inflation, but via the reduction in the economy's capital spending requirement. This would reduce the equilibrium level of interest rates, since the Fed has to stimulate other parts of the economy to offset the loss of demand in capital spending in the retail sector.

Feature

Anecdotal evidence is all around us. The global economy is evolving and it seems that all of the major changes are deflationary. Amazon, Airbnb, Uber, robotics, contract workers, artificial intelligence, horizontal drilling and driverless cars are just a few examples of companies and technologies that are cutting costs and depressing prices and wages.

Central banks in the major advanced economies are having difficulty meeting their inflation targets, even in the U.S. where the labor market is tight by historical standards. Based on the depressed level of bond yields, it appears that the majority of investors believe that inflation headwinds will remain formidable for a long time.

One school of thought is that low inflation reflects a lack of demand growth in the post-Great Financial Crisis (GFC) period. Another school points to the supply side of the economy. A recent report by Prudential Financial highlights "...obvious examples of ... new business models and new organizational structures, whereby higher-cost traditional methods of production, transportation, and distribution are displaced by more nontraditional cost-effective ways of conducting business." 1

A "culture of profound cost reduction" has gripped the business sector since the GFC according to this school, permanently changing the relationship between labor market slack and wages or inflation (i.e., the Phillips Curve). Employees are less aggressive in their wage demands in a world where robots are threatening humans in a broadening array of industrial categories. Many feel lucky just to have a job.

In a highly sensationalized article called "How The Internet Economy Killed Inflation," Forbes argued that "the internet has reduced many of the traditional barriers to entry that protect companies from competition and created a race to the bottom for prices in a number of categories." Forbes believes that new technologies are placing downward pressure on inflation by depressing wages, increasing productivity and encouraging competition.

There are many factors that have the potential to weigh on prices, but analysts are mainly focusing on e-commerce, robotics, artificial intelligence, and the gig economy. In the first of our series on inflation, we will focus on the rise of e-commerce and the related "Amazonification" of the economy. The latter refers to the advent of new business models that cut out layers of middlemen between producers and consumers.

Amazonification

E-commerce has grown at a compound annual rate of more than 9% over the past 15 years, and now accounts for about 8½% of total U.S. retail sales (Chart 1). Amazon has been leading the charge, accounting for 43% of all online sales in 2016 (Chart 2). Amazon's business model not only cuts costs by eliminating middlemen and (until recently) avoiding expensive showrooms, but it also provides a platform for improved price discovery on an extremely broad array of goods. In 2013, Amazon carried 230 million items for sale in the United States, nearly 30 times the number sold by Walmart, one of the largest retailers in the world.

Chart 1
E-Commerce: Steady Increase In Market Share
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Chart 2
Amazon Dominates
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With the use of a smartphone, consumers can check the price of an item on Amazon while shopping in a physical store. Studies show that it does not require a large price gap for shoppers to buy online rather than in-store. Amazon appears to be impacting other retailers' ability to pass though cost increases, leading to a rash of retail outlet closings. Sears alone announced the closure of 300 retail outlets this year.

The devastation that Amazon inflicted on the book industry is well known. It is no wonder then, that Amazon's purchase of Whole Foods Market, a grocery chain, sent shivers down the spines of CEOs not only in the food industry, but in the broader retail industry as well. What would prevent Amazon from applying its model to furniture and appliances, electronics or drugstores? It seems that no retail space is safe.

A Little Theory

Before we turn to the evidence, let's review the macro theory related to positive supply shocks.

The internet could be lowering prices by moving product markets toward the "perfect competition" model. The internet trims search costs, improves price transparency and reduces barriers to entry. The internet also allows for shorter supply chains, as layers of wholesalers and other intermediaries are removed and e-commerce companies allow more direct contact between consumers and producers. Fewer inventories and a smaller "brick and mortar" infrastructure take additional costs out of the system.

Economic theory suggests that the result of this positive supply shock will be greater product market competition, increased productivity and reduced profitability. In the long run, workers should benefit from the productivity boost via real wage gains (even if nominal wage growth is lackluster). Workers may lower their reservation wage if they feel that increased competitive pressures or technology threaten their jobs. The internet is also likely to improve job matching between the unemployed and available vacancies, which should lead to a fall in the full-employment level of unemployment (NAIRU).

Nonetheless, the internet should not have a permanent impact on inflation. The lower level of NAIRU and the direct effects of the internet on consumer prices discussed above allow inflation to fall below the central bank's target. The bank responds by lowering interest rates, stimulating demand and thereby driving unemployment down to the new lower level of NAIRU. Over time, inflation will drift back up toward target. In other words, a greater degree of the competition should boost the supply side of the economy and lower NAIRU, but it should not result in a permanently lower rate of inflation if inflation is indeed a monetary phenomenon and central banks strive to meet their targets.

Still, one could imagine a series of supply shocks that are spread out over time, with each having a temporary negative impact on prices such that it appears for a while that inflation has been permanently depressed. This could be an accurate description of the current situation in the U.S. and some of the other major countries.

We have sympathy for the view that the internet and new business models are increasing competition, cutting costs and thereby limiting price increases in some areas. But is there any hard evidence? Is the competitive effect that large, and is it any more intense than in the past? There are a number of reasons to be skeptical because most of the evidence does not support Forbes' claim that the internet has killed inflation.

1. E-commerce affects only a small part of the Consumer Price Index

As mentioned above, online shopping for goods represents 8.5% of total retail sales in the U.S. E-commerce is concentrated in four kinds of businesses (Table 1): Furniture & Home Furnishings (7% of total retail sales), Electronics & Appliances (20%), Health & Personal Care (15%), and Clothing (10%). Since goods make up 40% of the CPI, then 3.2% (8% times 40%) is a ballpark estimate for the size of goods e-commerce in the CPI.

Table 1
E-Commerce Market Share Of Goods Sector
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Table 2 shows the relative size of e-commerce in the service sector. The analysis is complicated by the fact that the data on services includes B-to-B sales in addition to B-to-C.2 However, e-commerce represents almost 4% of total sales for the service categories tracked by the BLS. Services make up 60% of the CPI, but the size drops to 26% if we exclude shelter (which is probably not affected by online shopping). Thus, e-commerce in the service sector likely affects 1% (3.9% times 26%) of the CPI.

Table 2
E-Commerce Market Share Of Service Sector
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Adding goods and services, online shopping affects about 4.2% of the CPI index at most. The bottom line is that the relatively small size of e-commerce at the consumer level limits any estimate of the impact of online sales on the broad inflation rate.

2. Most of the deceleration in inflation since 2007 has been in areas unaffected by e-commerce

Table 3 compares the average contribution to annual average CPI inflation during 2000-2007 with that of 2007-2016. Average annual inflation fell from 2.9% in the seven years before the Great Recession to 1.8% after, for a total decline of just over 1 percentage point. The deceleration is almost fully explained by Energy, Food and Owners' Equivalent Rent. The bottom part of Table 3 highlights that the sectors with the greatest exposure to e-commerce had a negligible impact on the inflation slowdown.

Table 3
Comparison Of Pre- And Post-Lehman Inflation Rates
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3. The cost advantages for online sellers are overstated

Bain & Company, a U.S. consultancy, argues that e-commerce will not grow in importance indefinitely and come to dominate consumer spending.3 E-commerce sales are already slowing. Market share is following a classic S-shaped curve that, Bain estimates, will top out at under 30% by 2030.

First, not everyone wants to buy everything online. Products that are well known to consumers and purchased on a regular basis are well suited to online shopping. But for many other products, consumers need to see and feel the product in person before making a purchase.

Second, the cost savings of online selling versus traditional brick and mortar stores is not as great as many believe. Bain claims that many e-commerce businesses struggle to make a profit. The information technology, distribution centers, shipping, and returns processing required by e-commerce companies can cost as much as running physical stores in some cases. E-tailers often cannot ship directly from manufacturers to consumers; they need large and expensive fulfillment centers and a very generous returns policy.

Moreover, online and offline sales models are becoming blurred. Retailers with physical stores are growing their e-commerce operations, while previously pure e-commerce plays are adding stores or negotiating space in other retailers' stores. Even Amazon now has storefronts. The shift toward an "multichannel" selling model underscores that there are benefits to traditional brick-and-mortar stores that will ensure that they will not completely disappear.

4. E-commerce is not the first revolution in the retail sector

The retail sector has changed significantly over the decades and it is not clear that the disinflationary effect of the latest revolution, e-commerce, is any more intense than in the past. Economists at Goldman Sachs point out that the growth of Amazon's market share in recent years still lags that of Walmart and other "big box" stores in the 1990s (Chart 3).4 This fact suggests that "Amazonification" may not be as disinflationary as the previous big-box revolution.

5. Weak productivity growth and high profit margins are inconsistent with a large supply-side benefit from e-commerce

As discussed above, economic theory suggests that a positive supply shock that cuts costs and boosts competition should trim profit margins and lift productivity. The problem is that the margins and productivity have moved in the opposite direction that economic theory would suggest (Chart 4).

Chart 3
Comparison Of Pre- And Post-Lehman Inflation Rates
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Chart 4
Incompatible With A Supply Shock
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By definition, productivity rises when firms can produce the same output with fewer or cheaper inputs. However, it is well documented that productivity growth has been in a downtrend since the 1990s, and has been dismally low since the Great Recession. A Special Report from BCA's Global Investment Strategy 5 service makes a convincing case that mismeasurement is not behind the low productivity figures. In fact, in many industries it appears that productivity is over-estimated. If e-commerce is big enough to "move the dial" on overall inflation, it should be big enough to see in the aggregate productivity figures.

Chart 5
Retail Margin Squeeze Only In Department Stores
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One would also expect to see a margin squeeze across industries if e-commerce is indeed generating a lot of deflationary competitive pressure. Despite dismally depressed productivity, however, corporate profit margins are at the high end of the historical range across most of the sectors of the S&P 500. This is the case even in the retailing sector outside of department stores (Chart 5).

These facts argue against the idea that the internet has moved the economy further toward a disinflationary "perfect competition" model.

6. Online price setting is characterized by frictions comparable to traditional retail

We would expect to observe a low price dispersion across online vendors since the internet has apparently lowered the cost of monitoring competitors' prices and the cost of searching for the lowest price. We would also expect to see fairly synchronized price adjustments; if one vendor adjusts its price due to changing market conditions, then the rest should quickly follow to avoid suffering a massive loss of market share.

However, a recent study of price-setting practices in the U.S. and U.K. found that this is not the case.6 The dataset covered a broad spectrum of consumer goods and sellers over a two-year period, comparing online with offline prices. The researchers found that market pricing "frictions" are surprisingly elevated in the online world. Price dispersion is high in absolute terms and on par with offline pricing. Academics for years have puzzled over high price rigidities and dispersion in retail stores in the context of an apparently stiff competitive environment, and it appears that online pricing is not much better.

The study did not cover a long enough period to see if frictions were even worse in the past. Nonetheless, the evidence available suggests that the lower cost of monitoring prices afforded by the internet has not led to significant price convergence across sellers online or offline.

Another study compared online and offline prices for multichannel retailers, using the massive database provided by the Billion Prices Project at MIT.7 The database covers prices across 10 countries. The study found that retailers charged the same price online as in-store in 72% of cases. The average discount was 4% for those cases in which there was a markdown online. If the observations with identical prices are included, the average online/offline price difference was just 1%.

7. Some measures of online prices have grown at about the same pace as the CPI index

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics does include online sales when constructing the Consumer Price Index. It even includes peer-to-peer sales by companies such as Airbnb and Uber. However, the BLS admits that its sample lags the popularity of such services by a few years. Moreover, while the BLS is trying to capture the rising proportion of sales done via e-commerce, "outlet bias" means that the CPI does not capture the price effect in cases where consumers are finding cheaper prices online. This is because the BLS weights the growth rate of online and offline prices, not the price levels. While there may be level differences, there is no reason to believe that the inflation rates for similar goods sold online and offline differ significantly. If the inflation rates are close, then the growing share of online sales will not affect overall inflation based on the BLS methodology.

The BLS argues that any bias in the CPI due to outlet bias is mitigated to the extent that physical stores offer a higher level of service. Thus, price differences may not be that great after quality-adjustment.

All this suggests that the actual consumer price inflation rate could be somewhat lower than the official rate. Nonetheless, it does not necessarily mean that inflation, properly measured, is being depressed by e-commerce to a meaningful extent. Indeed, Chart 6 highlights that the U.S. component of the Billion Prices Index rose at a faster pace than the overall CPI between 2009 and 2014. The Online Price Index fell in absolute and relative terms from 2014 to mid-2016, but rose sharply toward the end of 2016. Applying our guesstimate of the weight of e-commerce in the CPI (3.2% for goods), online price inflation added to overall annual CPI inflation by about 0.3 percentage points in 2016 (bottom panel of Chart 6).

There is more deflation evident in the BLS' index of prices for Electronic Shopping and Mail Order Houses (Chart 7). Online prices fell relative to the overall CPI for most of the time since the early 1990s, with the relative price decline accelerating since the GFC. However, our estimate of the contribution to overall annual CPI inflation is only about -0.15 percentage points in June 2017, and has never been more than -0.3 percentage points. This could be an underestimate because it does not include the impact of services, although the service e-commerce share of the CPI is very small.

Chart 6
Online Price Index
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Chart 7
Electronic Shopping Price Index
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Another way to approach this question is to focus on the parts of the CPI that are most exposed to e-commerce. It is impossible to separate the effect of e-commerce on inflation from other drivers of productivity. Nonetheless, if online shopping is having a significant deflationary impact on overall inflation, we should see large and persistent negative contributions from these parts of the CPI.

We combined the components of the CPI that most closely matched the sectors that have high e-commerce exposure according to the BLS' annual Retail Survey (Chart 8). The sectors in our aggregate e-commerce price proxy include hotels/motels, taxicabs, books & magazines, clothing, computer hardware, drugs, health & beauty aids, electronics & appliances, alcoholic beverages, furniture & home furnishings, sporting goods, air transportation, travel arrangement and reservation services, educational services and other merchandise. The sectors are weighted based on their respective weights in the CPI.

Our e-commerce price proxy has generally fallen relative to the overall CPI index since 2000. However, while the average contribution of these sectors to the overall annual CPI inflation rate has fallen in the post GFC period relative to the 2000-2007 period, the average difference is only 0.2 percentage points. The contribution has hovered around the zero mark for the past 2½ years.

Surprisingly, price indexes have increased by more than the overall CPI since 2000 in some sectors where one would have expected to see significant relative price deflation, such as taxis, hotels, travel arrangement and even books. One could argue that significant measurement error must be a factor. How could the price of books have gone up faster than the CPI?

Sectors displaying the most relative price declines are clothing, computers, electronics, furniture, sporting goods, air travel and other goods. We recalculated our e-commerce proxy using only these deflating sectors, but we boosted their weights such that the overall weight of the proxy in the CPI is kept the same as our full e-commerce proxy discussed above. In other words, this approach implicitly assumes that the excluded sectors (taxis, books, hotels and travel arrangement) actually deflated at the average pace of the sectors that remain in the index.

Our adjusted e-commerce proxy suggests that online pricing reduced overall CPI inflation by about 0.1-to-0.2 percentage points in recent years (Chart 9). This contribution is below the long-term average of the series, but the drag was even greater several times in the past.

Chart 8
BCA E-Commerce Proxy Price Index
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Chart 9
BCA E-Commerce Adjusted Proxy Price Index
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Admittedly, data limitations mean that all of the above estimates of the impact of e-commerce are ballpark figures.

Conclusions

We are keeping an open mind and reserving judgement on the disinflationary impact of robotics, artificial intelligence and the gig economy until we do more research. But in terms of the impact of e-commerce, it is difficult to find supportive evidence.

The available data are admittedly far from ideal for confirming or disproving the "Amazonification" thesis. Perhaps better measures of e-commerce pricing will emerge in the future. Nonetheless, the measures available today do not suggest that online sales are depressing the overall inflation rate by more than 0.1 or 0.2 percentage points, and it does not appear that the disinflationary impact has intensified by much.

One could argue that lower online prices are forcing traditional retailers to match the e-commerce vendors, allowing for a larger disinflationary effect than we estimate. Nonetheless, if this were the case, then we would expect to see significant margin compression in the retail sector.

The sectors potentially affected by e-commerce make up a small part of the CPI index. The deceleration of inflation since the GFC has been in areas unaffected by online sales. High corporate profit margins and depressed productivity growth also argue against the idea that e-commerce represents a large positive macro supply shock. Finally, today's creative destruction in retail may be no more deflationary than the shift to 'big box' stores in the 1990s.

Perhaps the main way that e-commerce is affecting the macro economy and financial markets is not through inflation, but via the reduction in the economy's capital spending requirement. Rising online activity means that we need fewer shopping malls and big box outlets to support a given level of consumer spending. This would reduce the equilibrium level of interest rates, since the Fed has to stimulate other parts of the economy to offset the loss of demand in capital spending in the retail sector. To the extent that central banks were slow to recognize that equilibrium rates had fallen to extremely low levels, then policy was behind the curve and this might have contributed to the current low inflation environment.

Mark McClellan, Senior Vice President
The Bank Credit Analyst
markm@bcaresearch.com

  • 1 Robert F. DeLucia, "Economic Perspective: A Nontraditional Analysis of Inflation," Prudential Capital Group (August 21, 2017).
  • 2 Business to business, and business to consumer.
  • 3 Aaron Cheris, Darrell Rigby and Suzanne Tager, "The Power Of Omnichannel Stores," Bain & Company Insights: Retail Holiday Newsletter 2016-2017 (December 19, 2016)
  • 4 "US Daily: The Internet and Inflation: How Big is the Amazon Effect?" Goldman Sachs Economic Research (August 2, 2017).
  • 5 Please see Global Investment Strategy Weekly Report, "Weak Productivity Growth: Don't Blame the Statisticians," dated March 25, 2016, available at gis.bcaresearch.com
  • 6 Yuriy Gorodnichenko, Viacheslav Sheremirov, and Oleksandr Talavera, "Price Setting In Online Markets: Does IT Click?" Journal of the European Economic Association (July 2016).
  • 7 Alberto Cavallo, "Are Online and Offline Prices Similar? Evidence from Large Multi-Channel Retailers," NBER Working Paper No. 22142 (March 2016).